Hands-on planetology

up with playing Solitaire or Hearts between those moments of productive inspiration?  NASA Ames Research Center has set up a cottage industry (unpaid) to help Mars specialists there build a catalogue of impact craters on the Martian surface.  As those flyers tucked under your windscreen wipers say, “No experience needed”.

Probably the most important scientific breakthrough from studies of the Moon since the 1960s has been the discovery that its pocked surface resulted from impacts by chunks of interplanetary debris.  The rate of impact and the size of the colliding bodies, and therefore the energy that they delivered, has varied since the Moon formed.  The lunar cratering record, backed up by accurate dates of its products, is a detailed chronology of how impacts influenced Earth’s evolution – vital, since signs of impacts rapidly become masked by our planet’s vitality.

Mars, on which NASA scientists and many more besides focus their undivided attention, is also cratered as a result of the same kind of process.  Counting craters, measuring their diameters (a proxy for the energy involved in their formation) and looking for their age relative to one another and other features of the Martian scene is an excellent means of assessing aspects of the Red Planet’s evolution.  But Mars is a great deal bigger than the Moon, and the sheer tedium of doing the work has become a burden.  Those geologists who compiled the lunar record have moved on, and few relish the task as a profession, hence Ames’ appeal for public participation.

The idea is that the basic information on crater occurrence, size and relative age – that’s based on relations between overlapping craters and degradation by Mars’ “weather” – can easily be gathered by interested, but untrained people.  The statistical work can then be done much more quickly.  If you fancy being a NASA “Clickworker”, then connect to http://clickworkers.arc.nasa.gov/top

Since inception on November 17, 2000, all clickworkers combined have contributed 340,070 crater-marking and 93,891 crater-classification entries.  It seems better by far than simply running the SETI distributed software to analyse radio frequencies for possible signs of intelligence out there.  You get to look at some magnificent high resolution images too.

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